Relevancy test for Philosophy

Paul Graham is a computer programmer and author and thinker about the world iof the web. He wrote an interesting essay, “How to do Philosophy,” about his own interest in philosophy, philosophy’s history as he sees it, and its possibilities. He has some harsh things to say about a lot of traditional philosophy, but they’re worth mulling over. His proposal for philosophy:

I propose we try again, but that we use that heretofore despised criterion, applicability, as a guide to keep us from wondering off into a swamp of abstractions. Instead of trying to answer the question:

What are the most general truths?

let’s try to answer the question

Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general?

The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we’ve written to do anything differently afterward. Knowing we have to give definite (if implicit) advice will keep us from straying beyond the resolution of the words we’re using.


6 thoughts on “Relevancy test for Philosophy

  1. Mike

    This is not so different from Nietzsche’s philosophers of the future in BGE. Moralists and advocates who revalue. I’m not sure so much about the utility criteria. Nietzschean utility seems more self- satisfying (in both a positive and a negative sense).


  2. Kleiner

    Interesting that he rephrases the ‘question of philosophy’ not only toward applicability, but does so in a way that makes no mention of truth, beauty, or goodness at all.

    Just because something causes people to do differently after exposure to it does not make it good/true/beautiful (I don’t care which one you pick). Hitler presented ideas that made people do things differently – so was he a great practical philosopher?

    ‘Usefulness’ and applicability are all well and good, but only insofar as we make discernments based on the right ends.


  3. Huenemann Post author

    My guess is that Graham avoided appeal to truth because he had in mind at least some things that are neither true nor false themselves, but useful. The example he gives of what he’s talking about is “the idea of the controlled experiment.” But this is a point he should make explicit.


  4. Kleiner

    That is funny, I have never heard of Godwin’s Law. Anyway, I don’t think I violated it here. I gave a perfectly good example of someone who got people to act differently after being exposed to his ideas, who we would all universally agree did not make things better. I don’t think it was inflammatory or exaggerated. I didn’t compare Bush to a Nazi, or something stupid like that.

    Anyway, my point was quite clear – just getting people to change (act different) is not worthwhile in and of itself. It is only worthwhile insofar as you get people to change and act toward properly ordered ends.


  5. Kleiner

    Okay, I can see how the “idea of a controlled experiment” is neither “true nor false” but is simply “useful”. But does “the idea of a controlled experiment” get anyone to act differently? It might be that actually performed experiments have changed peoples minds about things.

    Maybe I am missing something here. Give me an idea of what this would look like. How is philosophy not already doing this? It seems to be that various philosophical ideas (real 1.0 ones) and the way we choose to think about them (like freedom, God, moral obligation) have a big impact on how we act. I know they do for me.

    I’ll confess, I am worried that all Graham is actually doing is reducing philosophy to mere utility. Humans naturally desire the true, the good, and the beautiful. Graham excludes truth and beauty, and reduces goodness to utility. For my part, I’ll stick with Aristotle here, who divides our activities into three (roughly corresponding to the three natural desires): theoretical, practical and productive. (This three-fold division appears throughout philosophy, from Plato’s three classes in the Republic up through Freud’s psychology).
    I think philosophy has some priority. I say this on some ontological ground. Truth is defined by (dependent on) being. Goodness is defined by (dependent on) truth. And beauty is defined by (dependent on) goodness. Graham would reduce goodness to utility, and make it first.

    I am not here to defend “academic philosophy”. I don’t really consider myself an “academic philosopher”. None of my friends in philosophy do either. Perhaps there is an “old guard” out there that did not connect philosophy to life. But, speaking for a younger generation of philosophers, I don’t personally know any philosopher under the age of 45 that does this.

    It is natural for philosophers to worry about philosophy. The question “what is philosophy?” and “what is philosophy good for?” are as old as philosophy itself. No other group (scientists, psychologists, etc) that I can think of spends as much time hand-wringing over self-definitions as we do. That is just part of it. Crisis is also a part of philosophy, especially the crisis of where philosophy “fits in” with society at large. But we act like pathetic spurned lovers when, every time the world says “no” to us, we run back to the powder room to try to reinvent ourselves as a prettier and more exciting version of ourselves. NO I say! Better to die like Socrates, is it not?

    So my response to Graham and others who want to radically re-define philosophy (making her something perhaps totally unphilosophical) is this:
    Might it be that philosophers are generally going about things in the right way? Might it be that our irrelevance to contemporary debates has less to do with us and more to do with everyone else? Do we need to become less philosophical in order to become relevant? For my part, I’ll engage in the [potentially vain] task of insisting that the world become more philosophical instead.



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